John Brewster Jr. and the Deaf World

Brewster's deafness profoundly affected his life and work. At the time of Brewster's birth and childhood, there were neither formal deaf education programs nor a national Deaf community with which to be involved. It was not until Brewster's adult years that the first school for the deaf was founded in Hartford, Connecticut. With the founding of this school in 1817, Deaf culture in America emerged with the creation of American Sign Language (ASL). While there were small enclaves of the Deaf such as on Martha's Vineyard, these groups would not have met the Brewster family. Therefore, his hearing family likely created their own home signs to communicate with and instruct Brewster.
Home signs are improvised gestures, pantomime and signs that were intelligible only to those in the household. Many deaf children and families created home signs to bridge communication barriers before ASL. Later, families who subscribed to the oral approach of education, where ASL is banned and entire effort is placed on trying to teach the child to speak, also developed home signs. Brewster probably communicated with the rest of the world through pantomime and a small amount of writing. It is astounding then that Brewster traveled great distances, sometimes in areas that were unfamiliar, negotiated prices, decided poses and artistic ideas with his sitters, as well as living among his sitters of weeks or months at a time. To make this situation easier in his early career Brewster relied on family connections to secure many sitters.
Paradoxically, it seems likely that Brewster's deafness may have improved his ability to paint portraits. Unable to hear and speak, Brewster focused his energy and ability to capture minute differences in facial expression. He also greatly emphasized the gaze of his sitters, as eye contact was such a critical part of communication among the Deaf. Scientific studies have proven that since Deaf people rely on visual cues for communication can differentiate subtle differences in facial expressions much better than hearing people.
In his adulthood, after attending the Connecticut Asylum for the Instruction and education of Deaf and Dumb Persons, Brewster had to choose between remaining in a Deaf community or rejoining the hearing world. He ultimately went back to his former life. This choice between hearing and Deaf worlds is something Deaf people struggle with even today. Many Deaf people finding a Deaf community and friends immediately feel a sense of kinship and friendship, which they describe as coming home. The school in Hartford laid the foundation for this setting. Today, many Deaf children are mainstreamed into public schools or are given cochlear implants, which places them more firmly within the hearing world. How these children find their identity in many cases mirrors Brewster's own search.

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